APL is a world leader in logistics and container transportation, with 12,000 staff and more than 200 offices in 50 countries. Shipping cargo to global destinations, the company has two main divisions: APL Logistics (specialising in supply chain management solutions) and APL Liner (which deals with container transportation).
APL Logistics had a turnover of US$59m (£33.6m) in 2005. It is the fastest growing business unit within its parent company, the Neptune Orient Line (NOL) Group, which is based in Singapore.
Shipping is widely perceived to be lacking in glamour and pay. APL's prime location in London's Canary Wharf means it is surrounded on all sides by 'sexier' organisations - primarily in finance - offering attractive salaries and benefits. These factors made it difficult for the company to attract applicants and retain new recruits.
Margot Freeman, head of HR at APL Logistics, decided to focus on training and work experience in a bid to boost recruitment and retention.
Inspired by a presentation by the European College of Business and Management, she approached the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), which funds training courses. Freeman realised that as well as increasing employee career prospects and enhancing APL's skills base, training would also have a real impact on retention by keeping staff with the company for the duration of any course.
"We run quite a lot of training in-house, but in the past the trainees didn't gain nationally recognised qualifications," Freeman explains. "If they left the company with an NVQ level 3, they would have a recognised external qualification. Effectively, this means they would be locked into the business for at least 18 months."
Freeman and Carol Chumley, her senior HR analyst, organised two qualifications in addition to NOL's two-year, fast-track management trainee scheme for graduates.
A Level 3 NVQ in customer services is now available for 19- to 24-year-olds, and a leadership development course for all ages is run by the People Development Team, resulting in a certificate from the Institute of Leadership and Management. This ensures that everyone has a chance to gain a qualification - regardless of their age or educational background.
"It's about on-the-job experience," says Chumley. "Just because someone doesn't have a degree, it doesn't mean they haven't got any potential."
Another plus is that the company is not left out of pocket, as the LSC reimburses wages to APL for the time delegates spend away from their desks while training.
Freeman also stepped up APL's work experience offering, with the aim of keeping students on permanently once their placements ended. It now offers structured placements of between six weeks and six months full-time, with reimbursement for travel costs. "We set proper objectives for the students right from the start of the placement, as we would with anyone working with us," she says. That way, they get real outcomes at the end of their work experience, and are totally integrated as one of the employees."
Freeman has even volunteered the company as a pilot group in the development of a work experience 'kite mark' from the National Council for Work Experience.
"The kite mark is set to work along the lines of Investors in People accreditation, and is proposed to cost around 5,000 for accreditation," says Freeman.
APL's hard work is starting to pay off. Since the work experience placements were introduced, morale and productivity levels have improved, and six students have been hired on a permanent basis - saving thousands of pounds in recruitment costs. The company was also awarded third place in this year's National Council For Work Experience Awards in the category for companies with 10 to 250 employees.
More than 25 workers have been through the training programmes so far. The qualifications have boosted their promotional prospects, with five already progressing up the career ladder as a result. This has created the opportunity for more career development moves within the company.
"APL Logistics and APL Liner are becoming more integrated," Freeman explains. "So as people start moving around more [between the two companies] and more people are being promoted, there are more opportunities for the trainees to progress."
The courses have also had practical spin-offs for the business, such as an imports booking procedure that arose from the modern apprenticeship in customer services. And as APL Logistics has built its reputation for employee development, the quality of applicants has improved, allowing the company to be more selective during the recruitment process.
While Freeman readily admits that providing structured training makes the employees better equipped to move on, she remains confident that the benefits make the investment worthwhile.
"You might train them and you might lose them but, in the interim, you've kept them in for two years at a stage when they are most likely to be moving around somewhere else," says Freeman. "Training should not be seen as a negative cost," she insists.
If I could do it again...
"I would devote more time with individual staff following the annual appraisal review, rather than relying on the feedback from the appraisal forms," says Margot Freeman, head of HR at APL Logistics. "This would enable me to establish the vocational training needs, and any other training or experiences that staff would like to pursue, such as a taking a sabbatical. It would also give me a clearer picture of their career aspirations, which the line manager might not have picked up on, because of my knowledge of the range of skills and experience needed in different parts of the business."
Guide to implementing a training programme in 5 steps
1 Engage the staff. Make sure the training programme has specific objectives to improve employees' current job functions and boost their career prospects.
2 Thoroughly research your training provider before making a decision. Use your HR contacts for suggestions, and take up recommendations from other companies.
3 Plan ahead. Consult line managers about operational business workflows to ensure you avoid conflicts between business and training interests.
4 Get your own feedback. Do not rely solely on evaluation sheets provided by the training facilitator.
5 Carry out a robust training needs analysis at least once a year to follow up the appraisal process.
Wendy Keeling was working in APL's import customer service department when she decided to take the advanced award Level 3 NVQ in customer services.
"I was delighted when the opportunity to participate on this course was presented," she said. "I gained a qualification for my CV, and also made the company aware that I wanted to learn new things and progress."
The course ran over a period of 18 months, and comprised monthly tutorials, coursework and two small exams.
"I found the work very enjoyable," says Keeling. "And although it was hard at times balancing work with the course, it was achievable, as the course itself was work-related and based on my actual job."
Not only did the qualification help Keeling improve in her day-to-day work, but it also enabled her to progress within the company.
"After finishing the course, I applied for the role of exports customer services representative, which was a grade higher than the job I was in," Keeling says. "I probably wouldn't have gone for it beforehand. But the course really helped my confidence."
Keeling's application was successful. Last year she moved to a trade analyst position to learn more about cargo allocations, and she has now been working in that role for six months.
"I'm very happy in my job at the moment and feel that my prospects are good," she says. "If there were ever any more opportunities to do different courses, I would jump at the chance."